In 1997, Tiger Woods, then just 21, captured the spotlight with an unbelievable 12-stroke victory to snag his first major as a professional golfer at the Augusta National. His amazing rise to supremacy in the golf world could only be matched by the sudden plunge from grace and superiority — a decline that many predicted he’d never be able to overcome.
But after a decade of professional disappointments, physical pain and personal struggles, Woods regained his position at the top on the familiar greens of Augusta, securing his fifth Masters title and 15th major tournament on Sunday.
And so, sporting that pumped fist which fans had witnessed so many times in year’s past — a sign of victory for the former amateur golf standout — and with an emotional embrace of his children and mother, Woods, now 43, pulled off the improbable, the impossible and the unbelievable — pulling to within three major titles behind Jack Nicklaus’s record 18.
Woods, known for his reticence, even allowed himself a shout of joy, perhaps revealing just how much this victory meant to him. When he last held center court, neither of his children, now 10 and 11, had been born.
Ironically, Woods finished the first round at 70 — the exact score he grabbed along his first win at the Masters. However, many will point to his five-under-par 67 in the third round that left him just behind the leader, Francesco Molinari. Seven golfers entered the fourth and final round no more than two strokes out of the lead. But it would be Woods, always the shrewd, calculating sportsman who, with a two-stroke lead, settled for a bogey on the final hole, gambling that by being cautious he could avoid any disastrous error, silencing his critics with a one-stroke victory. And he did.
“It’s unreal for me to experience this,” he said in a televised interview after his victory on Sunday.
“It was one of the hardest I’ve ever had to win just because of what’s transpired the last couple of years. To have my kids here, it’s come full circle. My dad was here in ’97 and now I’m the dad with two kids here.”
Woods, who started the final round two strokes off the lead, besides his unprecedented victory, also did something that he’d never done in his career, coming from behind in the final round to win a major tournament.
Woods has always given much of the credit for his success to his father, Earl Woods, who died in 2006.
But on the eve of his most recent victory, history reminds us that decades ago, just one day later, April 15, 1975, it would be Lee Elder, facing numerous death threats and forced to live in several houses to keep his whereabouts unknown, who teed off at Augusta — the first Black to be allowed on its pristine greens — as a golfer, not as a caddie.
Elder, along with other Blacks on the PGA Tour, would be humiliated and forced to change clothes in a Pensacola parking lot after club members refused to allow them in the clubhouse. Another time, while in Memphis, Elder found himself awakened by someone who reportedly said, “N—–, you better not win this golf tournament,” forcing him to continue play with a police officer as his escort. Scores of other tales of hatred and prejudice remain ensconced in the annals of history.
When asked what it was like for him back then by South African PGA champion Gary Player, Lee asked Player, “How do you explain what it was like being a Jew during the war?”
Woods has Elder, now 78, to thank, along with Calvin Peete, the most successful Black to have played on the PGA Tour before Tiger hit the scene and scores of Blacks who once served as caddies but never gained the chance to swing their club as competitors in the formerly all-white world of golf, for the opportunities from which he’s so richly benefited.
Maybe, just maybe, his recent emergence from the wilderness will serve as the impetus for Woods to become more vocal and proactive on behalf of other talented youth of color, making the path a little easier for Blacks in the years to come while continuing to break down a door that has long kept talented Blacks locked out.